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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

The Jury Duty Diaries

Submitted by on March 11, 2007 – 7:49 PMNo Comment

PRELUDE

When I moved to New York, my father offered me two pieces of advice — don't leave the cap off the toothpaste because the roaches will hop on your Crest, and don't register to vote because the jury-duty elves will find you.My father, New Jersey's leading post-punk anarchist, believes that both roaches and government should be eradicated, but that's another column.Suffice it to say that I ignored Fatherly Tidbit #2, and sure enough, the jury-duty elves sent a smudgy carbon slip demanding my presence as a witness to some miscarriage of justice or another.This is my story.

DAY THE FIRST

Eight-thirty in the morning.I arrived at 111 Centre Street and presented myself at the metal detector for the first test of my patience, the older gentleman in front of me who insisted that passing through the detector would adversely affect his pacemaker."Yeah, I got your pacemaker right here," snarled the security guard.I wedged myself into an elevator so crowded by the time I disembarked at the eleventh floor I had inadvertently had sexual intercourse with someone's briefcase.

I sat down towards the front of the jury room, a holding pen dotted with annoyed people and their cell phones.It reminded me of homeroom, except that nobody was writing hearts with initials in them on the blackboard.A guy who looked like a young Mickey Rooney sat down across from me and started wiggling his eyebrows in my general direction.Ick.Then the jury clerks came out and we went through some bureaucratic rigmarole with the jury ballots which seemed designed solely to prove that most of the people in the room had only a tenuous grasp of the alphabet, and after we got done with that, the jury clerk that looked like Peter O'Toole put on a video which even with Diane Sawyer and Ed Brantley smacked of public access.It traced the origins of trial-by-jury from ancient Greece to the present day — reeeeeeeally slowly."Like we give two shits," some guy behind me grumbled.

The official orientation had now ended.The clerks explained that they would not call the roll, but rather would trust us to show up, an announcement that prompted several prospective jurors to dash for the nearest exit.Stanley (the one that didn't look like Peter O'Toole) reiterated for the umpteenth time that they, in their capacity as jury clerks, could not excuse anyone from jury service.That didn't stop several self-important suits from marching briskly to the front to demand their release, lest the futures market collapse in their absence."Look," Peter O'Toole yelled to the entire room, "I don't care if you're performing brain surgery, people.I can't excuse you.Period."Five minutes later, a short woman with brown hair came to the front desk and explained politely that she was a neurologist who should, in fact, be performing brain surgery rather than sitting on her dupa reading the "So You're A Juror" pamphlet.O'Toole sent her packing.

The clerks then informed the assembled that the call for courtrooms would come any minute, and that when we heard our names called, we should yell "HERE" as loudly as possible and then mill around in the hall until a court officer herded us someplace else.Mickey Rooney, who also looked like a Norwegian male gymnast, got up to stretch his little legs.The parade of complainers continued.One woman pled to O'Toole that her carpal-tunnel syndrome prevented her serving on a jury."You won't be asked to do any typing, lady.Siddown," O'Toole growled, his thready comb-over a-bristle.Then he started reading off names, and managed to mispronounce mine in spite of the fact that "Sarah Bunting" has got to be the easiest name to sight-read in the Western world."HERE, and it's BUN…TING, as in 'bye baby bunting," I yelled out, the first of two hundred times that I would repeat this crypto-witticism in the days to come.As I stomped out into the hall, I heard Norwegian Gymnast Mickey Rooney say to his neighbor, "'Bye baby bunting'?Wat de hill iz det?"Drop dead, you gnome.

I landed in the Honorable Bruce Allen's courtroom.The court clerk swore us in as prospective jurors for Part 76.Courteous and self-effacing, Judge Allen explained the whole operation to use in excruciating detail.The court clerk filled the jury box, and after he told us that we were not allowed to read or consume refreshments, the stupefying process of voir dire began.The judge read the indictment, which alleged that the defendant had attempted to possess two ounces of cocaine.Cool, I thought to myself; I was arrested for drug possession, so no way do they pick me for this one.Then the judge questioned those in the box: Where do you live.What do you do.What do other members of your household do.Have you ever served on a jury before.If so, did you deliberate and reach a verdict.Do you know any members of law enforcement.Do you know any lawyers.Have you or someone close to you ever been the victim of a crime.Have you or someone close to you ever had a conflict with law enforcement.Can you be fair and impartial in spite of any conflict either with a criminal element or with the law.Do you understand that the burden of proof rests with the prosecution.Can you apply the instruction of the law even if you personally do not agree with it.Has your butt fallen asleep yet.

The assistant district attorney, Kathleen Doyle, got up to ask some questions.She looked like Linda Hamilton and had a huge ladder in her pantyhose.Then defense counsel Lawrence Fisher asked a few questions.Then the court officer escorted us outside while counsel exercised their challenges.(The voir dire took two hours for only sixteen prospective jurors, because people didn't speak loudly enough for the court reporter to hear them, or because they approached the bench to plead financial hardship or wanted to tell the judge that their brother-in-law was doing time for mail fraud without the whole courtroom hearing.)We all filed back in after half an hour, the court clerk read out who had been picked, the rest of the box went back to the jury room, and the judge announced the lunch recess."After lunch, we'll take another group," he said.Oh goody.

I flung myself outside with cigarette at the ready.I found a phone easily — Centre Street is, after all, populated mostly by lawyers and their oily ilk — but had to wait in line to use it.I looked around at life's awkward pageant for awhile; everyone down there had to be there, save perhaps for the guy who cruised by wearing a neck brace and a bucket on his head.Homeboys in baggy purple John Tesh suits and bowler hats, cops in full dress that all knew each other, a lawyer with two cell phones in one hand — talking on both — and a dirty-water dog in the other.Never have I seen so many wingtips, or heard the word "policia" whispered so many times.Finally a phone freed up and I called El Rabo, who harshed the charred remains of my buzz by informing me that his father had scored World Series tickets.Right before I slammed down the receiver, I saw Norwegian Gymnast Mickey Rooney lurking at the edge of my field of vision.Die, imp!Die!

I headed to Mickey D's for some nourishment, taking my McNuggets to Federal Plaza, a park apparently designed by Kermit the Frog during a particularly lurid acid trip.Bright green benches curve around large mounds of grass; the overall effect is that of an ancient Hello Kitty burial ground.One of the other jurors — Ms. Low, an irksomely thin fabric buyer for Liz Claiborne — seated herself near me, and we nodded to each other.I realized then that jury duty qualified as an adult activity, and that I had to therefore attempt to simulate the behavior of the other adults, rustling my Arts & Leisure section officiously and pestering the jury clerk with questions about plugging my modem in in the ladies' room.Bleccchh.

After filling my quota for smoking for the afternoon, I went back inside.They called my name at last, and they bungled it again."Bunting," I repeated, "as in 'bye baby bunting.'"Judge Allen reminded us that bunting was also an infield hit in baseball.Out of respect for the bench, I acted as though I had never heard this feeble attempt at humor in my life before, even though all through junior high and high school I dreaded games of softball and kickball in gym class because some flat-chested little witch from the so-called in crowd would always yell out, "Bunting's bunting" and then expect me to guffaw, either with genuine hilarity at her tiresome joke or at the sheer delight of being noticed by one of the cool kids, and then I would go ahead and bunt and the witch would get her Benetton sweat-knickers in a twist and make up a rule outlawing bunting in the game and say, "You're out, Sarah, you are SO OUT," and then the gym teacher would have to take time out from talking about her nasty bald boyfriend and his nasty Chapter-11 construction business long enough to nip the catfight in the bud, and then the nickname "Cunting" would be resurrected in the locker room, or "Hot Cross Bunting" or "Cinnamon Bunting" or one of the other monikers that the cat pack found comical, and then one of them would snap my bra strap, and then they would go back to ignoring me, which brings us back to jury duty (nice segue, Sarah), because the ultimate goal as a juror is to get them to ignore you for five days and then you can go home.I treated Ms. Diaz on the other side of the box to a deluxe eye-roll.Voir dire then proceeded without deviation from the first panel.Slow.Even slower.I admitted to the possession bust, and also to thinking that marijuana should be decriminalized.ADA Doyle was having none of that, so I was dismissed, and I trudged home.

DAY TWO

Activities observed in the jury room:
sleeping/snoring
trying to pick up chicks (note use of the word "trying")
changing clothes
reading Hillary Clinton's It Takes A Village and highlighting certain passages
polishing fingernails
staring into space
doing "very important" paperwork (see also: cursing under breath; tapping pen against teeth; looking VERY busy and VERY annoyed indeed at this intrusion of the United States Constitution into the daily routine)
clearing excess fluid from sinuses
eating macaroni salad with a knife (before 10 AM only)
writing down bitchy observations in order to include them in a column

If you read Day One, I won't bore you with the nitty-gritty of the actual procedure of jury selection.(If you didn't read Day One, go read it now.)On Day Two, we all turned up at 9:30.It was a Friday, which put us all in a better humor.I heard my name mangled shortly after arriving and traipsed down to the seventh floor, where a fellow named Christian Anderson defended himself against the allegation that he punched two cops during a brawl outside a nightclub.Oops.I knew they would only dismiss my supposedly cop-hating self again, but I still had to sit through a voir dire that reminded me of the hotel hallway in The Wall — endlessly long, punctuated only the drone of the vacuum.The vacuums of the day: ADA Susan Odeski, who looked like the bear on the Snuggles commercials and had a shrunken right hand that clung to a pen Bob Dole-style; and Counselor Rubinstein, wearing a large gold bangle on his left wrist that even Ivana Trump would dismiss as a little on the tacky side.My butt had begun to ache again by 10:30; fortunately Judge Lefkowitz let us out for a two-hour lunch promptly at noon.

And what a lunch I had.I stepped outside and made a few calls, including to work, where Herr Doktor Feder assured me that they would spring me soon, and also told me that they didn't really miss me that much at the bookstore except for comic relief.Norwegian Gymnast Mickey Rooney strolled by while I was on the phone, and I wished aloud that this tour of jury duty could have a leitmotif, any leitmotif, besides Norwegian Gymnast Mickey Rooney, and Herr Doktor wanted to know what the hell I was talking about, and I asked him to envision the theoretical love child of Kerri Strug and Mickey Rooney but hung up before he could answer and went to McAnn's.

McAnn's is on Duane Street, probably because three quarters of the guys in there at any time are named Duane, and I observed immediately upon entering that the art of serious midday drinking is alive and kicking."I've never seen so many happy people," the bartender said, and he could have been serious; more than a dozen Norm Petersons were quite contentedly watching a soap opera.I was happy too because I was allowed to smoke, but then again, I could have puked on the floor while playing a Peter Frampton tune on the ukulele and I don't think anyone would have noticed.I ate my lunch — a tuna sandwich on a mismatched hamburger bun, and fries, all served in a plastic basket lined with tinfoil.A blonde woman comforted her boyfriend: "Don't cry, Billy.Nobody believes cops anymore."One man, warmed by whisky sours, had begun to deliver a monologue on the nature of American women."Don't get too close, man," he warned."You got to remember that one rule.Don't get too close. All that'll get you is heartbreak.That's all it'll get you.""Or bankruptcy," another man chimed in.This comment cracked them up.On the way back to 111, I spotted a homeless man hanging out under a blue tarp.His cardboard sign announced that he was "collecting $1,000,000 for wine research."

Day Two ended with my dismissal after another agonizingly boring series of questions.

DAY THREE

It is the Monday after a hellacious weekend, during which I got drunk, got drunker, lay in bed praying for death, and got drunk again while taping an interview for the public-access paean to orgiastically poor editing that we know as Gentlemen Of Leisure.As a result, this day distinguished itself primarily by a brutal hangover, which added nausea, dryness of mouth, and fear of barfing all over the court reporter to the pre-existing factors of boredom and irritation.Adding to the general malaise was the knowledge that, once released from criminal-court purgatory, I would have to spend a number of hours performing necessary duties for not one but three of my four jobs…not to mention cutting and clearing the forest of beer bottles occupying all of my counter space and a significant portion of my kitchen floor.

The morning did not start auspiciously; hurrying to 111 Centre Street, I passed a Department of Corrections bus and had to endure the animal-like rattling and catcalling of the inmates.Upon reaching the jury bullpen I greeted my fellow travelers, several of whom I had befriended on a pro tem basis and still more of whose life stories I had memorized due to the repetitive and exhaustive nature of voir dire.And they knew mine, nodding sagely when I was called today for a drug case involving two superannuated Chinese men indicted on twelve counts of criminal preparation, possession, and sale of heroin."You're outta there," they said to me.

The defendants' interpreter looked the way I felt, as did the very pregnant court reporter, who kept excusing herself to use the bathroom.Ms. Black and I sat sniping in the back of the room, and she wondered sotto voce why there were so many court officers wandering around.Mr. Weisberg, a retired cab driver, pointed at me and whispered, "Bonnie here might get rough. Where's Clyde anyway?"I told him that Clyde and I broke up, which was true.Ms. Tyler, a fantastically well-groomed grandmother, groused that the judge was a bitch, which was also true.We shifted around constantly in our seats to alleviate the butt-igue that plagued all of us, except for Mr. Levy, a sharply dressed and fatuously attractive financial manager of some sort with a very high voice for a man, who read a book.Ms. Black and I dubbed him Soprano Stock Boy, and every time he opened his mouth we tried not to giggle.Every once in a while, Norwegian Gymnast Mickey Rooney would appear from around a corner.Ms. Tsevdos leaned over and whispered, "Is that guy one of Santa's elves or something?"

After lunch, more of the same.I at last underwent direct voir dire, and afterwards Ms. Alexander commiserated with me about my arrest.Her brother was a heroin addict, she told me, who destroyed the family business and then OD'd.She told me also that I should be careful about buying what she called "the big M" on the street: "You don't know what they could have laced it with."Her sister had breast cancer about ten years ago, and recovered, but Ms. Alexander said that the two of them used to toke up together to alleviate the sister's discomfort from chemo."We fondly remember those times," she said.Highly personal tales like this, that I heard from people I didn't even know, astounded me time and time again — tales delivered with the brisk matter-of-factness of voice mail.My brother was shot and killed.I was stabbed on a subway platform.I was mugged at knifepoint.I was mugged at gunpoint.I was pickpocketed.I was arrested for possession of drugs, for carrying a concealed weapon, for receiving stolen goods.My husband is in jail for armed robbery.I was addicted to heroin.My sister died of a heroin overdose.My mother died in a drunk-driving accident.My wife was raped.My son was killed in a drive-by shooting.I was savagely beaten in an elevator.My partner and I were assaulted by a group of guys in ski masks.By my estimate, nine of out ten prospective jurors had been mugged, or pickpocketed, or someone close to them had.And about half of us reported something like the things listed above.

I was not picked for this jury either, and I went home to lick my wounds.

DAY FOUR

Today, prospective jurors learned that it is literally impossible to drink from a water fountain without dousing your front and nauseating those around you.This lesson was provided by a court officer whose clip-on tie plunged to a watery grave while its owner slurped away at top volume.Mr. Baderacco stuck his head out of a phone booth to stare at the court office and say, "Does that guy…mind?"

The Tic-Tac trend also emerged on Day Four.Almost everyone (me included) was sporting the peppermint Tic-Tacs, purportedly to vanquish the beast of mid-morning coffee breath, but for other purposes also; we challenged ourselves by busting out Tic-Tac action in open court and sneaking a couple of teeny mints, but without making that disruptive Tic-Tac rattle.The highlight from this game: Mr. Caswell, trying to eke out a Tic-Tac or four from a half-full (and thus highly rattle-prone) box, tapped the box lightly to dislodge the remaining mints from their cluster at the bottom of the box, at which point all of said Tic-Tacs sprang free and rattled onto the floor.The court officer glared at Mr. Caswell, who blushed to the roots of his Fabio-like hair while the rest of us stifled our laughter.Other in-court amusements included identifying the origins of various farts, playing rock-paper-scissors, and putting the newspaper on the floor and reading it while turning the pages with one's toes so as not to arouse the suspicions of the court.This pretty much reflects the prevailing boredom level.

Another trend: answering all questions as tersely as possible in order to save time.Mr. Campignuolo trumped us all at this game with the following pronouncement early in Day Four: "I think he's guilty.Can I go now?"People had given up any pretense of respect for the court in favor of lying down in the gallery and catching forty winks.Today's case, a male prostitute/stripper accused of stealing someone's Visa card in a gay bar and using it to buy a leather jacket, interested me more than cases previous, but the fact that my butt had seceded from the rest of my body in despair sort of distracted me from the particulars.Jury duty was really beginning to remind me of junior high school — we couldn't leave; we had formed cliques; we wished they would just show a filmstrip so that we could nap in peace.Judge Davis seemed hip, but we wanted to be anywhere else.Of course, just when I had decided to feign a foaming fit in order to get out of there, I was selected as an alternate.Mr. Weisberg, also selected as an alternate, kissed my hand, which freaked me out for the rest of the afternoon.Mr. Mathis and I ran screaming to the elevator, literally, almost bowling over — yes, Virginia — Norwegian Gymnast Mickey Rooney.

DAY FIVE

We all showed up promptly at 9:45, and they kept us waiting for an hour and a half.At least, I thought, we would get to hear some damn testimony today, but nooooo — the case got pled out and all fourteen of us frolicked to the elevator.Mr. Caswell, Mr. Mathis, and I could scarcely decide what to do with this whole day that we had found; we exchanged phone numbers and went our ways.I went to work, actually, and never have I been so glad to see The Professor in my entire life, and I finally got laid later in the day, which brought my butt back into the fold, and I won't have to endure this experience for another two years, at which point I plan to pretend that I don't speak English.

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